Coleman-Baker Bill Passes
The Georgia General Assembly unanimously passed the Coleman-Baker Act (House Bill 88) which now awaits the signature of Governor Brian Kemp. This Act represents an important step forward in providing closure and justice for families affected by unsolved homicides in Georgia.
The Coleman-Baker Act requires state and local law enforcement agencies to develop procedures to initiate a review of unsolved homicides to determine if a full reinvestigation of the case could lead to new evidence or the identity of the killer. The law further provides an avenue for families that disagree with the findings of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to have an administrative law judge review the case.
The Act is named for Rhonda Sue Coleman, who was tragically murdered on May 17, 1990, in Hazlehurst, and Tara Louise Baker, a UGA student who was murdered in 2001 in Athens. Rhonda’s story was featured in Fox Hunter, a true-crime Podcast series presented by Sean Kipe and Imperative Entertainment. Fox Hunter brought renewed world-wide attention to Rhonda’s case and inspired the creation of the Coleman-Baker Act.
Milton and Gayle Coleman, Rhonda’s parents, said that they are “beyond grateful to the Georgia General Assembly for passing this historic piece of legislation. It was Rhonda’s desire to spend her life helping others and, while she was never able to fulfill her dreams, her legacy will live on through this upcoming law and help other families receive the answers they so desperately deserve. Justice and closure will become more accessible than ever to many Georgia families.”
The Act is a significant step in Georgia’s ongoing efforts to reduce the number of unsolved homicide cases statewide. Previously, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had launched a “Cold Case Homicide Unit” that consisted of retired agents who reviewed cases on a volunteer basis. In conjunction with the Coleman-Baker Act, the General Assembly appropriated $5.4 million dollars to create a fully staffed cold case unit that will employ 10 full-time agents devoted to solving unsolved homicides.
The passage of the Coleman-Baker Act is a pro bono project of former State Senator Scot Turner of Eternal Vigilance Action, who was inspired to help the Coleman family after listening to the Fox Hunter podcast. Turner said that the project saw “collaboration with the legislature, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Sheriff’s Association, Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, Georgia Defense Attorneys Council, and the Georgia Police Chiefs Association to bring this legislation to passage.” Turner hopes that “this work will result in seeing justice secured for families across the state.”
Under the Act, state and local law enforcement agencies will now be required to report the number of unsolved homicides in their jurisdiction to the Carl Vinson Institute each year. This will allow the legislature to obtain an accurate picture of how many homicides remain unsolved statewide and to determine if additional resources are needed to combat the problem. The Act further allows the state to withhold the cause of death on a death certificate if its release would hinder the investigation.
The legislation received wide bi-partisan support throughout the General Assembly and was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Houston Gaines, Rep. Bill Werkheiser, Rep. Alan Powell, Rep. Clint Crowe, Rep. Stacey Evans, and Rep. Marcus Wiedower. The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Sen. Randy Robertson, Sen. John Albers, Sen. Blake Tillery, Sen. Bo Hatchett, Sen. Bill Cowsert, Sen. Mike Dugan, and Sen. Lee Anderson.
Both Rep. Bill Werkheiser and Sen. Blake Tillery represent Jeff Davis County and were instrumental in helping to secure the appropriated $5.4 million dollars for the GBI’s new cold case unit.
The Coleman-Baker Act is also modeled after the Homicide Victims’ Families Rights Act which was recently passed by Congress and signed into law. The federal legislation is designed to combat the ever-growing number of unsolved homicides being investigated by the FBI.
The signing of this Act will ensure that law enforcement has access to the most advanced techniques and resources to investigate cold case homicides. The Coleman family and all families of unsolved homicide victims in Georgia can now have hope that justice will be served.